'Spider-Man' has launched Marvel on another marvelous ride

The "Spider-Man" movie - without question Marvel's most successful single project ever
- Poor Peter Parker. He always seems to be just scraping by. Recently, things have gotten so bad for Spider-Man's alter ego that he's had to take a job as a bodyguard for a Mafia don. Sure, he has a guilty conscience - but the pay is good. And money is persuasive, even to a superhero.

Maybe Peter should have used his prescient spider-sense and bought stock in Marvel Enterprises three years ago, when it was trading at a buck and change per share. Today, after a string of - choose the applicable Marvel adjective - amazing, uncanny, spectacular film adaptations, that same stock is hovering over $20.

Peter's money situation is as dire as always, but Marvel is flourishing. So is the comic book industry in general, buoyed in part by Marvel's films.

After reorganizing in the wake of a 1996 bankruptcy, Marvel is at the top of the industry, followed by DC, Image, Dark Horse and countless independents. Recovering from a low point of barely 20 percent market share in 1999, Marvel's take has risen to about 40 percent.

The "Spider-Man" movie - without question Marvel's most successful single project ever - grossed more than $800 million in theaters worldwide, with an additional 12 million DVDs and 5 million videotapes sold in its first two months of video release. "Daredevil" followed, grossing more than $173 million worldwide. "X2," Marvel's most recent film, has grossed more than $360 million worldwide, leading to high expectations for "The Hulk," which opens June 20.

DC Comics, Marvel's traditional rival and the home to Batman, Superman and the like, would not discuss sales figures (or Marvel) for this article. But some industry sources believe the company's market share has fallen to as low as 28 percent since 1999.

Still, don't count Gotham City and Metropolis out. Superheroes never truly die - and in the cyclical comic book industry, neither DC nor Marvel is on top for long. DC still is the industry leader when it comes to trade paperbacks and graphic novels, and it still boasts the No. 1 book, "Batman," by star writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Jim Lee. Not to mention such writing heroes as Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis.

And while DC has been nowhere near competitive with Marvel on the big screen, it hasn't been totally focused on comic books. "Smallville," a Superman-meets-"Dawson's Creek" television drama, is a peak performer on the WB network - even if it is ranked 103 overall.

In theaters, DC's graphic novel "Road to Perdition" was the source for the film of the same name, and DC will re-enter the superhero film fray in July with "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," its first such movie since the Batman franchise foundered in the late 1990s.

DC declined to comment on future films, which are rumored (and rumored, and rumored) to include a Superman movie in 2004 and possible Batman movies by directors Christopher Nolan ("Memento") and Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream").

Meanwhile, Marvel is wasting no time capitalizing on the success of its prior films, and makes no bones about hyping the 15 or so films it has in various stages of development: "Spider-Man 2" will be followed by "The Punisher," "Ghost Rider," "The Fantastic Four," "Blade 3," "Iron Man," "Deathlok," "Daredevil 2," "Elektra," "Iron Fist," "Luke Cage," "Silver Surfer" and "Sub-Mariner."

Partly because of the movies, comic sales are up 10 to 14 percent over last year.

While Bill Jemas, chief operating officer and president of Marvel Comics, agrees that the films have been a phenomenal boost for Marvel Comics, he disputes any idea that Marvel Comics has become nothing more than a research and development wing of Marvel Studios.

"We don't make books hoping that some director in Hollywood will turn them into a movie. We make books hoping that they'll find an audience. I don't know that we would run the business differently if we weren't making movies," he said.
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Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune